Union offers 5-year apprenticeship for women to learn welding

Posted at 9:24 AM, Apr 22, 2022

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — With less than 3% of tradespeople being women, a local union chapter is offering a 5-year apprenticeship program with full benefits to entice more female applicants.

The union, Tennessee State Pipe Trades Association (TSPTA), is one of 5,000 pipefitters, welders, sprinkerfitters and plumbers across the state. The Nashville chapter, Local 572, helped to build some of the largest economic development projects in the region, such as the Titans' Nissan Stadium, the Facebook Data Center in Gallatin, Spring Hill GM Plant, and most recently, the Nashville Sounds' GEODIS Park at the Fairgrounds. 

But with just over 5% of Local 572's apprentices being female, the organization said they have been pushing to hire more women, stating, "women of the union have made immeasurable differences on job sites."

The apprenticeship program offers participants health benefits, insurance, a pension, 45 college credits and most leave the program earning well over $100,000 in their first job.

Tennessee State Pipe Trades Association Apprentice Alexis Clark

Alexis Clark is set to graduate the program in 2023. She said just four years ago, she had no idea about this trade.

She said once she started the program, she knew it was a good fit.

"I've worked underneath pipefitters so I watched them. I wanted to weld, of course, so that was interesting," Clark explained. "It’s always something new, it’s a challenge."

Another woman in the program, Elizabeth Cunningham, switched careers from being a caregiver in a nursing home (CNA).

"When I applied, I didn't know how to read a tape measure. I didn't know the difference in a phillips head and a flathead screwdriver. Like, I just I didn't know anything about anything: plumbing, or welding or anything," recalled Cunningham. "I told him that in my interview, but I had an eagerness to learn and I was willing to learn and I follow directions well. So, I got accepted, and they put me to work. And I have not regretted it one day since."

Tennessee State Pipe Trades Association Apprentice Elizabeth Cunningham welds together a piece during her 4th-year class.

For Cunningham, who sported a fresh french manicure, she said she enjoys the work every day because she knows "[for example] at the end of that job, you have put in the plumbing and that job that hundreds of people are going to use, you know, it's just rewarding to know that you did that. And you feel a sense of accomplishment."

In the male-dominated field Cunnigham explained her supervisors appreciate her attention to detail.

"Being able to look at something and look at all the different ways that you can do something instead of just having your mind set on one way because a lot of people are set in their ways," Cunningham explained. "They do things the way that they were taught, but women get in there with a different outlook."

The women completing the Tennessee State Pipe Trades Association Apprenticeship program said they hope other women will not be intimidated by the male-dominated industry and, instead, join them.

"To me, being a woman in this, I feel like, even though I am a very feminine woman, I feel like, you know, I don't have to be in everybody's box. You know?" explained Clark. "I don't have to do the same thing as every other woman. I could be myself. And I just feel like it gives you more of a push to accomplish more."

Clark and Cunningham agree, that while they continue to pursue their careers at TSPTA, they also want to encourage other women to join them.

"There is definitely a stigma about women and, you know, construction. So being able to show them that you can do just as much if not more than they [men] can do because I also feel like being a woman like you have this pressure on you to perform well," said Cunningham. "So I don't know, it's rewarding doing it."

Tennessee State Pipe Trades Association Apprentice Alexis Clark welds together a piece during her 4th-year class.

"Do not get intimidated," said Clark to other women interested in the trade. "Coming here, how you have the confidence that, you know, you can have. Have tough skin and make sure you do not allow them or other people to put you down because you could do it. And this is not just a man's job. You could do it and speak up for yourself and just come in here and do it."

Cunningham echoed her advice to young women, especially those graduating high school.

"You don't put yourself in a box, you can do anything that you want to do. It doesn't you don't have to be a lawyer or a teacher or a doctor, you can be you know, a construction worker, and you're not scum of the earth if you're a construction worker," said Cunningham. "You know, people really do look down on construction workers and think that they're less than they, but it's not the case."

Tennessee State Pipe Trades Association Apprentice Elizabeth Cunningham

With each year of training only costing participants $200, Clark said, "It's a win-win to me, you making money, and you going to school, so, nobody can — you can’t beat that."

The union said in a statement, "the organization’s approach to the traditionally held 'brotherhood' of unions is inclusive and welcoming of women to learn, train, and grow in this industry to help build the future of Nashville and Middle Tennessee."

For details about applying for the Local 572 Plumbing, Pipefitting & HVAC Apprenticeship Program, visit its website.

With just over 5 percent of the Tennessee State Pipe Trades Association members being female, Clark and Cunningham say the woman completing the program stick together.